Thursday, June 11, 2015

Tuesday in Texas - Big Stuff and Little Stuff

We've all heard someone say at one time or another, "Don't sweat the small stuff."  Most of the time, I find this to be a reasonable approach to things, but every now and then, those little things matter, a lot.

How often do you pay attention to an airplane flying over?  Or the air conditioner cycling?  Or birds singing on the roof?  Or pages turning? Or people breathing?  Our world is so saturated with sounds that we can't possibly pay attention to them all.  But sometimes, these small and often overlooked sounds become big things that are worthy of a little sweat.

I am spending my evenings this week recording with my church choir.  Usually when we sing we are concerned about how we sound as an ensemble.  Our listening centers around all those details that are necessary to make beautiful music...attacks, releases, diction, dynamics, phrasing.  Admittedly, we don't pay much attention, if any, to ambient sounds.  A bird singing or an airplane soaring overhead during a Sunday morning anthem during church will probably go unnoticed,  but when you are recording, ambient sounds make the difference between a piece being recorded in one take or in five takes.  All of the sudden, little things become huge things.  During the recording process, I have been fascinated by what I hear when I listen intentionally, by how big the little things can be.

My experience with sound this week is similar to what I experience regularly with photography.  How many times have you looked at an image that you have created and realized that there is something there that you did not see in the moment that you composed the photo?  With photography, that thing that we did not see may be either a good thing or a bad thing.  That surprise element has the capacity to either completely ruin a photo or make it something far more interesting than we originally thought.  Th bird on the roof or the plane flying overhead adds another layer to the visual story that is being preserved by that photo.  Extraneous noises or surprise sounds are almost never a good thing when it comes to recording music  The moral of the story here is that context and intention become key factors when we are trying to determine what is big stuff and what is small stuff.  What demands a bit of sweat?

Just as photographers rely on Photoshop to clone out the tree coming out of someone's head or the ketchup spot on that precious little girl's chin, sound engineers are able to splice out the page turns and the dramatic breaths taken in unison by the choir.  The singing birds in the middle of a piece, like the out of focus or poorly exposed photo can only be "fixed" with a re-take.  In all of this, an ethical question presents itself.  It is said that, "Art imitates life."  It seems to me that in "editing" art, whether that be with Photoshop or splicing together multiple takes to create a recorded piece of music, we are attempting to edit life rather than art.

Life is not perfect.  People don't always stand in the right place for a photo.  The photo op does not always present itself in the best light.  The ketchup does not always get wiped off the child's chin.  The birds don't stop singing when we are ready to record.  And, we all need to breathe.  So, what is the big stuff?  And what is the small stuff that we need not sweat?

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